When the good people at Mailchimp asked me to curate a series of essays for their Summer Reading Program, I jumped at the chance to elevate writers I love, collecting their stories in this time of isolation. The theme for this series is connection because we, the people, are irrevocably linked by our shared humanity. There is no getting away from one another. We can, however, tell each other the truth, and listen with open hearts when the truth is spoken. Or written. I curated a series of creative nonfiction essays because I wanted you to feel the bare-knuckle truth in the words of these writers. When they swing for you, I want the blow to connect. Contributing authors write about relationships to parents, spouses, children, homes, bodies, and self. They write about threads running through the veins of us all. They write about the way we are all subject to each other’s lives and decisions, offering themselves to reality instead of running from the inevitable pain of the world. I’m so grateful. Nothing about this project would be as powerful without the inclusion of each contribution from each artist. Well, you could have been anywhere on the internet, but you’re here with us, and I can’t thank you enough for that. I’m so excited for you to read these essays. My hope is when you do, you’ll feel a little tug on the threads in your own veins. I hope you follow them all the way to the end.
All my best, Ashley
Creation stories tend to begin with a void. A nothingness awaiting the something, tricked into existence and suddenly, taking up space. The deities vary in size and motivation and ability, but they perform incredible, ineffable tasks nonetheless. They separate sky from land and sea with a rod, and will the world into existence from primordial waters, mystery liquid dripping from the end of a jeweled spear. The story I’m the most familiar with is the seven-day creation model, with the seventh being the day of rest. I have never been so intimately acquainted with rest as I have during this pandemic—or at least, the illusion of it—as I used to think of being home as being granted reprieve. Bra off, shoes off, reclined in a place surrounded by my junk, surrounded by myself. A place I created, more or less.
But I don’t feel rested. And it goes beyond stir-crazy, a term I’ve relied on many times in the past few weeks because it is the easiest way to grasp at this ennui, unvarnished and stripped for parts by week 14, day 3. I returned to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper recently, rolling my eyes at myself for the obviousness of the gesture, but: walking the same halls day after day, scrubbing the same toothpaste from the same spot in the sink, washing the same frying pan, it frays the mind. The repetition lacks texture, flattening the temporal experience into both a formless, boundless expanse of uncertainty. A void.
I’ve rediscovered, and in some cases, discovered for the first time, the stories of these gods and monsters—terrible, avenging, mischievous, beneficent—through my daughter’s curious hunger for them. She’s obsessed with how things begin: the world, her life, the sky, a flower.
Where things come from, and why. Isolated from her friends and dance classes and school trips, with a growing wardrobe of masks and having learned to add “when coronavirus is over” to most requests, she’s suspended in a state of frustrating ignorance. I have to be honest with her, I owe her that, I have to tell her how upset I am, too, at how drastically and rapidly our lives have shifted. And so I do research and answer her questions, I try to provide her with something solid for her expanding intellect to grasp, and fill in the many blanks with stories of bombast and wonder to keep her entertained. And when I slip out of her room at night, leaving her nightlight of constellations tracking glowing moons and stars across her ceiling, I find my own point of connection in all this nothingness. I happily escape this reality and plunge into another.
My English major trained me to find patterns in literature, tropes and symbols to provide a steady footing within each new narrative landscape I traversed. That was mere table dressing. I discovered my own paths through the stories I read and made my own. I created my own doorways and wormholes, explored the hidden paths and echoing chambers that made my every reading experience an interactive one. And I haven’t grown out of it, not yet. My daughter craves beginnings, I push past the endings. That is to say: I collapse onto my couch and immerse myself in fandom: the theories, the character analyses, the stories, the debates. Which fandom doesn’t matter, because that changes by the week, month, year. In isolation, it’s a familiar lifeline: creeping along the edges, seeking out the patterns. Watching figures move within the shifting whorls of my own imagination, maybe, but can I be blamed for feeling the tiniest bit mad right now?
We spent weeks on Adam and Eve—no surprise, as she shares the name of one of the main characters. The naming of all the animals, the stolen rib, the dust made flesh. And the wily serpent, like the ones that adorn Medusa’s head, like the ones tattooed onto my left arm. She listens so quietly and intently, then asks me to read it again, and I wish for some sort of window into her brain, to see what is sticking and what connections she’s creating. Reading is a privilege, an activity that she looks forward to, even if she isn’t able to answer my questions when I try to gauge how much she’s understood. I don’t think that’s the point. Not yet, anyway. Making sense, forming connections: these are impulses she’s still blessedly free of, as a child. There is something much deeper, more primal in her appreciation, a simple purity that I sometimes fear I have lost.
Sometimes I remind her she has the power to tell her own stories, too, like the authors whose books adorn her shelves, like the television shows and storytelling podcasts she’s come to love. Like the blossoms that return to their full splendor in spring, like the waters that erupted from deep within the earth to make the way for a brighter and better one—she holds that same potential for glorious disruption, for interrupting the void to create something new.